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Psychologists and educators have studied learning for well over 100 years, and we still don’t know the specific conditions that result in learning. If we did, then teaching would be easy. A teacher would simply recreate the specific conditions, and students would always learn. We may not know exactly how people learn, but we do know a lot about the conditions that make learning more or less likely to occur. We know that learning is a complex interaction of multiple factors, such as a student’s prior knowledge of a topic, their learning strategies, and the mental effort required for learning (Chew & Cerbin, 2021). We know that teaching is incredibly complex and defies simple, one-size-fits-all pedagogical approaches. Nuthall (2007) described teaching as a process of constant adaptation to dynamic learning conditions. To try to capture the complexity of teaching and help guide teachers, my colleague Bill Cerbin and I outlined a framework of nine cognitive challenges that teachers must address successfully for students to learn. In this column, I am going to discuss the challenge of creating a productive academic mindset. The goal of creating a mindset for academic success is something teachers can begin addressing on the first day of class.
Student mental mindset refers to the attitudes and beliefs that the student has about the course (Chew & Cerbin). Mindset consists of multiple components. For example, students hold beliefs about their ability to do well in the course, what level and kind of effort they need to put into the course to do well, how important it is for them to do well in the course, how much they expect to enjoy the course, and how valuable the information presented in the course is to them. On the first day of class, teachers can cultivate an academic mindset that promotes student motivation toward deep learning and resilience in the face of setbacks and challenges (Farrington, 2013).
Farrington outlined four key student beliefs for a productive academic mindset.
Teachers need to create a sense of belonging within the class. Students should feel like their classmates fully accept them as a peer. Students who feel they are outsiders or less qualified to be in the class can experience belongingness uncertainty, which can undermine their academic success (Walton & Cohen, 2007). First-generation college students, minoritized students, and students outside the campus norm may be especially vulnerable, but virtually anyone may feel like others do not fully accept them. Teachers need to make the whole class feel welcome and accepted and guard against making anyone feel apart from the rest of the class.
An activity that builds class unity and identity can promote a sense of belonging. Binning et al. (2020) described an intervention to promote belongingness in which students in an introductory biology class were told that it was typical for all students to go through some adversity in their first year of college, but they could overcome it with persistence. The students engaged in discussion and reflective writing about their challenges. Student who experienced this intervention had higher attendance, course grades, and retention than students in a control condition, and this difference persisted over years.
The second component has to do with growth mindset, the belief that one’s abilities can improve as a function of dedicated, personal effort, as opposed to fixed mindset, the belief that a certain ability is a fixed trait that cannot be changed (Yeager et al., 2019). With a growth mindset, exam grades reflect a starting point from which the student needs to improve. With a fixed mindset, grades reveal an aspect of the student’s character that cannot be changed.
Yeager et al. (2019) have documented how a simple intervention to promote a growth mindset can have positive academic effects for struggling students and students in unsupportive educational contexts. Their intervention used the analogy of the mind being like a muscle that a person can develop through rigorous effort. Students reflected on this metaphor and then explained how it could be helpful to other students. Teachers should promote a growth mindset from the first day by focusing on the importance of effort for all students’ success in the class.
The third component is academic self-efficacy,the belief that a student has the knowledge and skills to succeed at a task with sufficient effort. Students who believe they have the competence to succeed show greater motivation, greater perseverance, and more effective study strategies. Usher and Pajares (1996) identified three sources of academic self-efficacy: mastery experiences, vicarious experiences, and verbal and social persuasion. In mastery experiences, students succeed at a course-related task. Vicarious experiences occur when students observe or learn about other students who have succeeded. Verbal and social persuasion occurs when the instructor or peers give encouragement or help.
From the first day of class, teachers can be encouraging to all students. They can discuss what students in previous classes experienced and what they did to succeed. Teachers can promote behavioral norms that will help students be successful. Behavioral norms are the expected student behaviors for a class, such as regular attendance, engaging in active note-taking, taking part in class activities, and asking questions. Teachers can instruct students in effective learning strategies and model their use in class. They can provide opportunities for students to test their understanding through formative assessments. We know from social psychology that norms form quickly in any new group context, and once formed, they can be difficult to change. It is important for teachers to establish desirable norms and habits on the first day. Have an activity on the first day that establishes the norm of students talking to each other and participating in class discussion. Students learn that in some classes they are expected to speak up and in others are expected to sit quietly. If the teacher doesn’t establish the norm of students speaking up, then they are establishing the norm of students staying quiet.
Students do not automatically believe a course will be interesting or valuable, especially one they are taking to fulfill a general education or distribution requirement outside their major. Teachers have devoted their careers to studying the subject matter. It is easy to forget that students do not automatically share the same level of interest. Teachers must persuade students of a course’s value to give them a purpose for learning. The teacher can start with why they find the subject interesting but should extend to how the course can be valuable personally or professionally to the student. The course may help students in their careers by improving their communication and problem-solving skills. It may help them personally by deepening their thinking about important social issues and avoiding misinformation.
Yeager et al. (2014) showed that students who have a self-transcendent purpose, one that goes beyond personal success to helping improve the lives of others, are more likely to persevere through difficult and tedious course tasks. They were also more likely to use deeper learning strategies. Teachers can talk about how their course links to self-transcendent goals or have students reflect on how the course might help them achieve such goals.
There are many ways to help students develop a productive academic mindset. I cannot tell you what the best activities and interventions will be for you, because effectiveness depends on the students, the teacher, and the subject. Even for the same teacher, what works for one section of a course may not work for another section of the same course. Teachers must find ways to address the four components of productive academic mindset and adapt them to their own learning context.
Chew, S. L., & Cerbin, W. J. (2021). The cognitive challenges of effective teaching. The Journal of Economic Education, 52(1), 17–40. https://doi.org/10.1080/00220485.2020.1845266
Farrington, C. A. (2013). Academic mindsets as a critical component of deeper learning. University of Chicago, Consortium on Chicago School Research. https://www.howyouthlearn.org/pdf/White_Paper_Academic_Mindsets_as_a_Critical_Component_of_Deeper_Learning_Camille_Farrington_April_20_2013.pdf
Nuthall, G. (2007). The hidden lives of learners. New Zealand Council for Education Research Press.
Usher, E. L., & Pajares, F. (2008). Future directions sources of self-efficacy in school: Critical review of the literature and future directions. Review of Educational Research, 78(4), 751–796. https://doi.org/10.3102/0034654308321456
Walton, G. M., & Cohen, G. L. (2007). A question of belonging: Race, social fit, and achievement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(1), 82–96. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.168
Yeager, D. S., Hanselman, P., Walton, G. M., Murray, J. S., Crosnoe, R., Muller, C., Tipton, E., Schneider, B., Hulleman, C. S., Hinojosa, C. P., Paunesku, D., Romero, C., Flint, K., Roberts, A., Trott, J., Iachan, R., Buontempo, J., Yang, S. M., Carvalho, C. M., Hahn, P. R., Gopalan, M., Mhatre, P., Ferguson, R., Duckworth, A. L., & Dweck, C. S. (2019). A national experiment reveals where a growth mindset improves achievement. Nature, 573(7774), 364–369. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-019-1466-y
Yeager, D. S., Henderson, M. D., Paunesku, D., Walton, G. M., D'Mello, S., Spitzer, B. J., & Duckworth, A. L. (2014). Boring but important: A self-transcendent purpose for learning fosters academic self-regulation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 107(4), 559–580. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0037637
Stephen L. Chew, PhD, is a professor of psychology at Samford University. Trained as a cognitive psychologist, he endeavors to translate cognitive research into forms that are useful for teachers and students. He is the recipient of multiple awards for his teaching and research. Author contact: email@example.com.